Thursday, May 18, 2023

Hebrew Insights into Parashat Bamidbar - Bamidbar (Numbers) 1 – 4:20


"And YHVH spoke to Moses in the wilderness…" (emphasis added), are the opening words of the Torah's fourth book, Bamidbar (Numbers). In this first verse, YHVH is "speaking" – "va’ydaber" – “in the wilderness" - "ba-midbar" - both words originating from the same multifaceted root - d.v.r (dalet, bet/vet, resh).  Let us examine this root and follow it to a number of unexpected places.  


“In the beginning was the word (davar), and the word (davar) was with Elohim, and Elohim was the word (“davar”)… And the word (davar) became flesh and lived among us…” (John 1:1,14). Davar is the spoken word, the all-powerful utterance that creates or generates everything, while “thing” is also "davar".  Thus, all "things" appear to be the results of that which has been "said" or "spoken".  In the Tanach, many terms, such as lies, wisdom, falsehood, truth, and more, are preceded by “d’var” – meaning “thing of….” indicating that the origin of all things is the ‘utterance’.  Davar is that which proceeds out of the mouth of Elohim, and is therefore "the Word of Elohim".  “Matters” or “business” are also “davar” (or “dvarim” in plural form), as we see for example in Shmot (Exodus) 5:13, 19: “Fulfill your works, your – dvarim - daily tasks" (emphasis added), and in Shoftim (Judges) 18:7, reference is made to the Danites who “… had no – dvarim - business with any man” (emphasis added).  Terms such as “deeds" (Jer. 5:28, speaking of "deeds of the wicked") are also “dvarim”. "Reason, motives, customs" (“the custom of the king” in Esther 1:13) also fall within the framework of “davar”.  The literal rendering for “after the order of Malchitzedek” (ref. Ps. 110:4), is “upon my divra, Malchitzedek”, that is, “upon my word”. The form “divra” illustrates the depth and scope of “davar”, which may be also rendered as an “order, pattern, type, or prototype". Hence, the “Ten Commandments” - “aseret ha-d’varim” - are “the ten words” or “things”, or “matters” (Ex. 34:28; Deut. 4:13, 10:4. Notice, none of these terms are related to “commandments” or “laws”).


From this point let us venture further a-field to “dever”, which is "plague", or “pestilence”.  Although this abrupt transition may seem curious, it is consistent with many such disparities found in the Tanach.  If we remember that "davar" also means "cause", then the "plague", or "dever", illustrates the principle that “the curse causeless/without reason shall not come” (Prov. 26:2).  Indeed, time after time the plague is the result of rebellion against Elohim, as in the case of the plagues of Egypt. YHVH says to Yirmiyahu (Jeremiah) about the people of Yisrael: “I will consume them by the sword, and by the famine and by the plague - dever” (Jer. 14:12 italics added). The following is what He speaks to the Land of Yisrael through the prophet Y’chezkel (Ezekiel): “The sword from without and the plague – dever - from within” (Ez. 7:15 italics added). Amos 4:10 records another warning by Elohim to send a plague upon His people.


"Subdue” or "destroy" stem, once again, from the root d.v.r, with its infinitive “le’hadbir”.  In T’hilim (Psalms) 18:47 we find, for example: “Elohim… subdues the people under me” (emphasis added). This verb also means “to expel or send away, " such as sending off the flock to pasture or the desert.  Thus, in Mi’cha (Micah) 2:12 the flocks are seen in the midst of their “hidabar”, which is translated as "fold" or "pasture".


The "subdued" enemy (or the sinner), therefore, is often “pursued", "sent away", or “driven” to the "wilderness" or "desert" - "midbar".  But just as the wilderness may turn out to be a place of “pasture” for the flocks, it may also become a place of repentance and spiritual refreshing to those fleeing (or forced) there. In the “midbar’s” stillness there are many opportunities to hear the voice of YHVH sounding His Word. The Bible records an impressive list of those who can attest to this fact.


Another place where YHVH’s voice is heard is in the Holy of Holies (or “inner sanctuary”), which in Solomon’s Temple is called Dvir (ref. 1st Kings 6:16).  Dvir is the furthest and innermost place within the Temple.  Divine communication, therefore, is to be found in the furthest and remotest of places; sometimes even in a land of banishment and punishment, which may become a refreshing oasis and even turn into a 'Holy of Holies'.


In summation, the Word, as epitomized by the Son of Elohim, is life-giving, but rejecting Him (the "Davar") may result in a plague (“dever”), which subdues and drives ("madbir") one to the desert ("midbar"), there to be spoken to ("daber") by the Living Word ("Davar") Who utters the Word of Truth ("dvar emet") in His inner sanctuary, or the holiest place (dvir). “And I will woo her to Me in the wilderness…” we read in Hoshe’ah (Hosea) 2:14. D.v.r teaches us why it was essential for the Israelites, on their road to becoming a nation, to experience a wilderness journey.


Chapters 1 and 2 of Bamidbar describe the formation of the congregation of Yisrael’s encampment, for the purpose of a census (cf. Ex. 30:11-16). However, on the previous occasion (in Exodus) each of them had to “give a ransom for his soul to YHVH while numbering them” (which was of one-half shekel that was used for the Mishkan), here they are not required to do so.


"Lift the heads of all the congregation of the sons of Israel, by their families, by their fathers' houses, according to the number of names, every male, by their skulls (literal translation, Num. 1:2 emphasis added). Notice that, the counting is referred to as “lifting of the heads”. "Nahmanides emphasizes that the census was personal and individual… impressing on us the value and sterling worth of each and every soul which is a unique specimen of divine creativity and a world of its own".  In the same vein, Isaac Arama says: "They were not just like animals or material objects, but each one had an importance of his own like a king or a priest.  Indeed Elohim had shown special love towards them and this is the significance of mentioning each one of them by name and status; for they were all equal and individual in status".[1] Yeshua’s death, for each and every man (ref. Heb. 2:9) on the Hill of "Golgota", which is Aramaic for "skull", lends even greater credence to the above statements. 


In Hebrew Insights into Parashat Shmot (Ex. 1-6:1) we noted that as soon as the Egyptians embarked on their program of subjugating the Hebrews, they began treating them as a nameless mass (ref. Ex. 1:10-12), while also condemning to death the baby boys (Ex. 1:16). This is in striking contrast to what we encounter in Bamidbar chapter 1. In Verse 18 we read, “State their genealogies”, or “declare their pedigree”, or “register their ancestry” (depending on the translation), which is designated in Hebrew by one word - “hit’yaldu” - the root being y.l.d (yod, lamed, dalet) for “child” or “to give birth”, or “midwife” (this also brings to mind the two midwives who saved the lives of the baby boys). This verb is found nowhere else in Scripture, and literally means to “become a child”. Thus, restoring the nameless individuals and clans to their respective origins, with the various groupings and families being recognized, acknowledged, and brought to the fore, is part of the redemption process. This aspect of redemption will one day be experienced again when all the names of the families, clans, and tribes of Yisrael will be revealed, so as to make up the full Commonwealth of the Household of Yisrael.  


When the roll call was completed and the Levites' duties in the Mishkan were dispensed, "YHVH spoke to Moses and Aaron, saying: 'Everyone of the children of Israel shall camp by his own standard, beside the emblems of his father's house; they shall camp some distance from the tabernacle of meeting'" (2:1, 2).  The organizational process, of turning the former slaves into a nation, is continuing. The Israelites were to array themselves according to their tribes in specified directions around the Mishkan. The “standard" mentioned here (and in 1:52) is "degel", of the root d.g.l (dalet, gimmel, lamed). In Shir HaShirim (Song of Songs) 5:10 we read: "My Beloved is bright and ruddy, standing out among ten thousand". “Standing out" is "dagul", and shares its root with “degel”. "Dagul" may also be interpreted as "chosen" and "selected".  Again, in the same book, the betrothed says about her beloved, "And His banner ("diglo") over me is love" (2:4). The various banners, or standards (according to the respective tribes) with their emblems, were indicative of YHVH's favor and love toward His "select" people, and over each member of this chosen race. 


The "emblems", mentioned above in 2:2, are "otot" (plural, and "ot" singular). "Ot" (take note of its spelling, alef, vav, tav) is a widely used term, denoting "sign, token, pledge, assurance, miracle, omen" and more.  Although we do not know what the banners looked like, it appears that each of them had the "ot", or sign, of a particular "father's house", which rendered each tribe much like a family related to a single progenitor. 


Concerning the grouping around the Mishkan, which was in the midst of the camp, Nahmanides says in relation to this edifice: “It was a kind of Mount Sinai on which the Torah was given, accompanying them on all their journeying”. Benno Jacob follows up this idea: “The Lord transferred His presence from Sinai to the Tabernacle, from the sanctuary of the Lord which His hands had established to the sanctuary which Israel had made'"2 This may account for the strict orders of the camp's formation.


The above-mentioned orders, regarding the tribes and their placements, excluded the Levites who were to serve in the Mishkan, and were to be at YHVH's disposal. In the course of the detailed description of their duties and responsibilities for the various parts of the Mishkan, mention is made of the edifice’s sides (Num. 3:29, 35). The Hebrew word here for “side” is “yarech”, of the root (yod, resh, kaf/chaf), meaning “thigh, loin or base”. The thigh represents man’s strength and power (see Gen. 24:2; 47:29), both in terms of virility and force (being also the place upon which the sword was placed). That is why in order for Ya’acov to become Yisrael his was so injured that he limped on it (Gen. 32:31), and likewise, the repentant one, who in order to demonstrate his true intentions smites this part of his body (e.g., Jer. 31:19, Ephraim’s repentance). Similar to the root d.v.r. in some of its uses, “yarech” also refers to the “furthermost point”, to the “backside” or to the “rear” (Jud. 19:1, Is. 14:15), and hence the application to “side”.


The vicarious role of the Levites as firstborn follows in Bamidbar 3:41, 45 with reference to their required conduct. It says there that, they were to be taken “instead” or “in place of all the firstborn among the sons of Israel”. “Instead” or “in place of”, here (and in numerous other places), is “tachat”, meaning “rear, under, or underneath”, thus underscoring the required attitude of humility and servitude congruent with the tasks assigned to YHVH’s ministers. On the same issue: In chapter 1 verse 49 it says regarding the Levites: "Only the tribe of Levi you shall not number, nor take a census of them among the children of Israel”. However, the literal Hebrew says the following: “But the Tribe of Levi you shall not number, nor shall you lift up their heads among the children of Israel”. Although, “lift up their heads” does imply census, as we saw above, let us not ignore the literal meaning of “not lifting up the heads [of the priesthood and their assistants] from among the [rest of] the children of Israel”!


Chapter 4 elucidates how the chosen family of K'hat (Kohath) was to dismantle the Mishkan when it was time to move on.  During this awesome procedure, they had to restrain themselves and avert their gaze from the holy articles, with the help of A'haron and his sons (vs 19, 20). "They shall not go in to see the holy things as they are being covered, lest they die", is the Parasha's last verse, which literally says, "And they shall not go in to see, at the swallowing of the holy things [lest] they die". The usage here of "swallow" ("bela") for "covering" the Mishkan articles is very unusual. It may be alluding to the fact that an unwarranted gaze could bring upon the onlookers (that is, the members of the K'hat clan) the penalty of being swallowed alive (a form of punishment which was sometimes inflicted – supernaturally - upon offenders, such as in the case of Korah in Num. 16:30-34). Thus, A'haron’s family was being charged with responsibility for the lives of their brothers, the K'hats, whose "keepers" they were to be.


1 New Studies in Bamidbar, Nechama Leibowitz, trans. Aryeh

Newman. Eliner Library, Department for Torah Education and

Culture in the Diaspora. Hemed Books Inc., Brooklyn, N. 

2     Ibid


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